As a temporary layoff shifts to a permanent one, will making the right choices restore some balance and make me feel safe?
My supervisor stunned me with her urgent, unexpected phone call. It was March 15 at 4:00 in the afternoon, around the time the world was changing for everyone. Pack up your computer, your monitor, your ergonomic office chair and anything else you might need in order to work from home for the next, oh, six months.
I remember wondering what the campus security personnel thought as they observed me walking out of the building with my arms overflowing. My husband helped me load the vehicle. We maneuvered it all into what had been my tiny upstairs writing studio.
Meanwhile my two sons left universities in Toronto and Prince George, returning to isolate at home with me, our daughter and my husband. We somehow found workspaces for all five of us. The kids worked to finish their university semesters, while my husband, the rector of our local Anglican Church, did the uncomfortable work of transitioning the community’s ministry to an online format.
Each Sunday we moved the kitchen table into the living room so he could lead Zoom worship from his iPad. The kids and I sat very still, opposite him at the table, token congregants reminding him of the folks watching from home, each with their own seclusion dramas. We kept Bilbo our noisy cat outside and did not clatter our teacups.
Working from home was an adjustment, but when so many suddenly were out of work, I felt gratitude to simply have a job. Though our campus department’s face-to-face service to students was defunct, I collaborated with a small team to develop, test and train staff for a Covid-safe approach for an online examination platform which was still required.
I looked past my monitors to the springtime fields next to our house, at people walking their dogs in light jackets. “It’s a good time,” I told my husband, “to be in my role.”
Until it wasn’t. I naively thought that my skillset would keep me safe. But notice of my “temporary layoff” came unexpectedly in a mid-June Zoom meeting.
Gratitude changes shape
Our department hemorrhaged personnel – I was one of some 23 laid off from our 30-person staff. Though we tried to remain positive, the layoffs took an enormous emotional toll. We did what we could to care for one another through Zoom and online chats, providing tender space for frustration and for tears. We celebrated each other’s abilities and talents in a group goodbye.
The first weeks of layoff were a relief. There was space to lay down the sadness and stress and simply enjoy the July weather. I received the CERB benefit from the federal government. I had energy to do something besides my job. Perhaps the Covid threat in Saskatchewan would ease enough for a return to the campus in September, and I would be recalled to my job.
We replaced worn out carpet with hardwood and painted our main floor interior a milky “Balboa Mist.” On cool mornings I stepped outdoors with my basket to pick beans and peas. I crooned over the sun-warmed bees busy among purple morning glories and tall pink hollyhocks.
Every day my sons and I played competitive, noisy card games of cribbage or Nerts. We walked through the park to the Burger Cabin for ice cream, binoculars hanging from my shoulder so I could focus on a distant kingfisher or oriole. I wrote and launched my own website, finding my blogging legs through reflecting on birds and hiking and where God was in it all.
Then September came, the kids returned to university and the birds flew south. Time to refocus – although, as I heard the other day, the best way to make God laugh is to tell him our five-year plan.
Good to be kind
Is now the time to commit 100 percent to the remaining painting and projects to update the house? Maybe I should focus wholeheartedly on my writing? Decision fatigue kicks in again, so I vacuum the floor and bake banana bread, because it feels good to be kind to my family.
Meanwhile the daylight grows shorter, the fields turn to brown, then to white. I’m once again confined to the house as the second wave swells for who knows how long. I think about friends I’ve barely seen since last spring, wondering if they’ve set and met a list of Covid-goals or if they feel, as I do, blocks of comfortable normalcy and times when I blink and think that nothing is the same.
Like everyone else I know, I feel smothered with everyday questions like whether to plan for Christmas dinner with others, how many gifts I can purchase in good conscience through Amazon, whether I will ever again find Lysol disinfectant wipes in the cleaning aisle.
Won’t making the right choices restore some balance and make me feel safe?
This last May I and my siblings emptied out my 94-year-old mother’s apartment. A change in her health required that she move into a care home and her belongings be dramatically downsized. I brought home with me (among the many other items piled in my studio) a book outlining the history of public safety in the Rocky Mountains, a history in which two of my older brothers (former Parks Canada wardens) were actively involved.
Reading it the other day I came upon an anecdote from the early days of helicopter rescue in the parks which, to my surprise, I knew very well.
The alpine specialist
My father loved telling a story, and his face lit up whenever he related this one.
The Banff warden service had received the report of an unconscious young man high up the Mount Rundle trail. Banff’s alpine specialist, Peter Fuhrmann, was flown the short distance to the site – attached as per protocol to a line hanging from the helicopter. Peter secured the man into a specialized carrying bag and they took off for the five-minute flight to the hospital.
But halfway there, the victim woke up to the sensation of rushing wind, the sight of a heavily bearded man and, above him, large red lettering spelling HEL. (The lettering on the underside of the helicopter actually read SHEL, but the “S” was obscured). Panicked and confused, the man asked “Who are you?” and was calmly told “My name is Peter.”
Suddenly convinced that he was en route to the afterlife, the victim galvanized into action. “No way!” he shouted, “I’m going back!” Immediately he began to struggle to escape from the carrying bag. Fists flew between the two men as the hospital staff waiting at the landing pad watched in horror. Thankfully, the disoriented victim was brought safely back to earth.
This was the point where Dad let out a good laugh. I know there’s a metaphor here somewhere for me.
Life after layoff
When I sit at my studio desk to pray, I acknowledge what the cumulative stress of these nine months has cost me. And not only me but teachers and students and health care workers and priests and clerks at Safeway and airline attendants and the elderly like my mom.
I can barely carry my own stresses let alone all of theirs. How, God helping me, should I live in my world today?
This morning I read a psalm of lament. I prayed for my children, pressing my nose into a bouquet of purple carnations. Since receiving notice last week that my layoff will be permanent, I updated my resume, feeling all the feels. I enjoyed banana bread with my tea.
I packaged up a holding cross for a friend’s sister whose diagnosis is terminal, so she can grasp a tangible reminder that our God (who knows all about suffering) holds her. I repeated to myself that God’s Spirit is – without doubt – actively present in and around me (with my goofy five-year plan) and throughout this crazy, broken, beloved world.
With a deep breath I drew in oxygen as a bellows to my feeble flame of hope. And I began for this moment to let the Fire leap up and warm me.
Darlene Pinter is an Anglican spiritual director who worked until recently at Saskatchewan Polytechnic in Moose Jaw, Sask. Another of her articles, Birdwatching and Looking for God at Work, appeared in our Sep/Oct 2020 issue. Photo of flame by Paul Bulai on Unsplash.